Damascus The Beginning of the End ( PT6)

I knew what I was getting into moving to Syria, I knew the risks, I have no regrets, my bank cutting me off and leaving me without funds was to say the least fucking annoying, it’s hard to imagine being made bankrupt is the least of your problems, I could live with the war, I wanted to stay in Syria as long as I felt the risks were calculable, Syrians had to live with this and if I was being denied the opportunity to photograph what was happening at least I could bear witness, the media was as is no surprise all over the place and hardly giving a true picture of the situation.
My issue with the Moukhabarat was obviously something to worry about; for the most part I had been following Kipling’s advice and keeping my head, it’s just routine everybody would tell me, if it was serious they would have come for you, the Old City was crawling with security these days and I wasn’t hard to find, if they did surely my blood coloured British passport would save me from diplomatic embarrassment, my embassy and minions needless to say had long since fled, I had placed all my faith in a corrupt not very secret secret policeman, one thing stuck in my mind, the words of the soft immigration officer, after telling me I was wanted at the intelligence building he advised me not to go.
I sat on my terrace, shielded from snipers, ignoring the shelling and read Eat Prey Love; a book so annoying I wanted to throw it into the air and see if it got shot to pieces. When the power was working my television viewing was just as banal, ten years of being detached from popular US/UK culture I was now well versed in Kardashian catchphrases.
Wasseem would call and tell me where and when I should meet him, numerous visits to filthy offices, usually I would wait outside, at the passport office in Merjeh I sat at the guards desk and watched as several detainees were lead away handcuffed and chained to each other, the filed through the reception area and up the stairs, nobody paid any attention, now as I think about it I hardly paid attention only looking up from the messages on my phone as they passed.
Cruising the clogged streets of Damascus with Wassem as my chauffer had its advantages, closed roads were open to us, checkpoints were just a formality as we skirted around long queues of those waiting to humiliated; a friend had been arrested at a checkpoint a few weeks previously, when he asked why he was told “we’re arresting everybody today” Wassem would pepper me with questions about my financial situation, the value and size of my house with obvious thoughts in the back of his mind, he had an agenda and was helping me not only for the few hundred dollars we had agreed but had his eye on a bigger goal, despite his position he never questioned me on the current situation which was unusual for those connected to the regime.
A battle was raging a few streets away, I climbed to the roof to get an idea of where it was happening, some neighbors had the same idea but they thought it prudent to bring the children too, as if the collapse of the country was entertainment or a video game, suddenly bullets were flying above my head and striking the satellite dishes, I ducked instinctively for cover although I knew I was shielded by the higher building, my neighbors on the other hand were not and made a run for the stairs, the shooting only lasted a few minutes but it gave me plenty to contemplate after, how far do those bullets travel.

Things were not looking any better.

Damascus Old City
Damascus Old City

Damascus The Beginning of the End (pt5)

A Syrian fighter jet screamed overhead, the roar of its engines unable to keep up with its speed, it turns into the sun, the light glinting off the fuselage, I imagine the pilot having to shade his eyes, the jet dives and dispatches its load, a plume of black smoke rises from the Damascus suburbs, the jet disappears but I know in a few minutes it will return, it’s a ritual, the circle of death.
I rarely sleep through the night, the sound of automatic gun fire disconcertingly close, the sound at night travels easily, it’s never as close as I think, then again sometimes it’s very close, usually rebels attacking checkpoints, often brief firefights but just enough to keep my senses too alert to go back to sleep-oddly though I can nap easily through the sound of daytime heavy shelling.
Most days my routine would be to walk through the Old City and out through Hamadiyya Souk, cross Merjeh Square and onto Pages Café in Shaalan, I would also have regular meetings with Wassem outside the immigration offices to check on progress, usually there wasn’t any, the weeks dragged on, on the days I didn’t go outside the Old City I missed car bombs, obviously it would be safer to stay at home but I refused to be bullied into being a prisoner in my own home although in effect I was already under house arrest, I could not really leave the confines of the city without permission anyway.
Once my laptop had died living without electricity became considerably more bearable, the cuts could be so regular you could set your watch by them and then sometimes the power would just go off and not come back for hours and hours. On one occasion I had been living without electricity for three days when I suddenly noticed my neighbors were enjoying TV, I stared up at their window, went outside to check my other neighbors and sure enough I was the only knob without electric, turns out the box had fused when the power had returned three days previously and I was oblivious.
Then the gas ran out.
Sometimes you just have to laugh at the absurdity of things, I often did, or as they say; you just cry. I didn’t cry, I made a conscious decision to stay when I had ample opportunity to leave, at no point had I underestimated the risks and consequences of my actions.
My usual buoyant sense of humor and oddly chipper mood though was shattered with a phone call from my bank in the UK, banks only ever call you when then want something and mine wanted my overdraft paid back that same day, I climbed to the roof to get a better reception, the noise from the shelling was intense and every sentence had to be repeated several times, yes they completely understood and sympathized with my predicament but business is business. Calling them back proved harder than you may imagine, I was sure having conversation with someone in my branch familiar with my account history etc would solve the issue; did I mention the absurdity of things just now? Try as I might the only people I managed to speak to using premium rate numbers were on the sub-continent, the war in Syria didn’t seem to register, the sound of bombing in the background didn’t seem out of place, I probably did lose my temper and may or may not have said things I may or may not now regret.

Merjeh Square Damascus Syria
Merjeh Square Damascus Syria

Damascus The Beginning of the End (pt4)

In the cold light of morning one thing seemed abundantly clear; I was in the shit.
I decided to pack up my things and prepare the house for my leaving, after ten years not such an easy task, I had already started re-arranging things in the hope of renting one of the rooms, several people came to look at the house but nobody wanted to deal with the militia checkpoint outside, the house was still only part restored, my builder, Abu Joudy’s work clothes still sitting on the top of his step ladder, he had long since left the country, Kurdish and without Syrian ID he found life difficult enough even before things went pear-shaped.
The artillery continued to fly overhead, some days it was relentless, very occasionally rebel mortars would fly back in the opposite direction, and several times they came close, bullets would zing overhead sometimes too but generally I felt I would have to be very unlucky to be hit, maybe I just preferred to think that.
I updated my friends and some family on my situation, few people could understand why I could not just leave, it’s simple, my name was listed on the computer at the borders as being wanted and I would simply be detained or sent back to Damascus.
Usually in Syria problems like this can be resolved with “wasta” or connections, over the years I must have built up some, not so very long ago I had a very friendly chat with the Syrian first lady and enjoyed tea with Presidential adviser Bouthania Shaaban, I went through my phone and collection of business cards, many had left, some had defected to the opposition, who could I actually trust? Eventually a friend suggested she knew a guy who smuggled people out of the country and I should give him a call.
I arranged to meet Wassem (his real name) at Trattoria restaurant in Shaalan, it was early evening and already the streets were becoming deserted, I sat on the terrace as I had done so many times before with friends, Wassem came over to me, wearing a pink or was it peach Lacoste t-shirt and a big ben size wrist watch, he didn’t want a drink just the details, I explained, he seemed to think it would be no problem, at least once a week he drove a car over the border with fugitives such as myself to Beirut.
Wassem I was soon to learn worked for Syrian intelligence, the Moukabarat, in most cases the not very secret secret police, this was an interesting turn of events, so I thought if Wassem is working for the very same people who are investigating me perhaps I can just pay him to remove my details from the computer-allowing me to leave legally and not ruining any prospect of return etc, So I left my fate in the hands of wide boy Wassem.
The only other option otherwise was to visit State security branch 235, I felt I would be okay and that my British passport might just save me from the horrors that have befallen so many that have been taken there, I had listened to chilling first-hand accounts from so many Syrians over the years, feel free to search Human Rights Watch and Amnesty etc to read brutal accounts of what goes on, I was prepared to face a short detention if I had to and deportation but more than that does not bare thinking about, a friend who was also expecting to be taken had told me she had quit smoking in preparation for the long stay and cut her nails back so they could not be pulled out, looking back I should have been biting mine to the extent there would be nothing left but somehow I still remained cool, and if I needed any other reason not to visit the opposition forces were regularly attacking the building, I didn’t trust Wassem but left him to see what he could come up with.
Could things get any worse I wonder, well apparently yes it seems they could.
My faithful Macbook decided now would be a great time to retire, it was not so old but each tech guy I spoke to said the same thing, it was fucked. Cash was running low now and although I had found a guy who made regular trips to Beirut with a pocket full of cash-cards to extract cash from working ATMs buying a new laptop was going to be a struggle, inflation was now rampant, I had to pay Wassem and I had to eat.

Deserted Hamadiya Souk
Deserted Hamadiya Souk

Damascus The Beginning of the End (pt3)

Crossing borders always makes me nervous, no matter if my paper work is in order as it (almost) is this time, not surprisingly there is no queue at the foreigners desk, neither is there an officer, just an empty chair beside the nicotine colored computer, I give a friendly wave to an officer who glanced up from his mobile phone, he calls another, I slip my passport under the glass, I adopt my innocent nonchalant persona and survey the scene with casual interest, behind the glass there’s sudden activity, an officer takes a set of handcuffs from cupboard on the wall, I notice the chair is empty again, my heart skips a couple of beats, the officer returns and thumps the stamp onto the page and slips my passport back under the glass, I thank him and at the same time noticing the detained man being cuffed and led away.
The check points were pretty straightforward and before long I was bouncing my suitcase over the cobbled stones of the alley leading to my house, my neighborhood has its own militia and they take a little convincing I actually live there until Hassan a teenage neighbor assures them and they let me pass.
I settle back into life; the buzz of helicopters, the constant bombing, intermittent power, shocking price increases, I visit friends and catch up on news, who has been arrested, who has been released, who has been killed, stories of kidnapping, my friends seemed somewhat surprised to see me back assuming I had more sense to stay away, I was just as surprised at how Syrians were able to deal with the awfulness of the situation.
It was time I go and visit the nice guys at the immigration department and see what had happened to my residence permit, a shambolic institution worthy of Kafka, I had been a regular visitor for ten years and was on first name terms with a couple of the officers although only crumpled 100 lira bills made anything easier.
No your Iqama is not here and why on earth did I hand it over in the first place they told me; why? Why? Because the officer took it from me, what was I supposed to do-fight him for it! Needless to say I had been expecting this since I left Syria, so I cheered myself up with some sarcasm and left accepting the advice to return another time in the highly unlikely event the card had been sent from the border.
After several return visits and time ticking slowly by I had to accept it was not going to arrive, no official could offer any explanation and if I wanted to leave the country I would need to resolve the situation, I would not be give permission to leave without it.
I had shot plenty of images on my trip around Jordan and Egypt but so far had not sold anything, apart from a few stock images sales I had not earned anything since the beginning of hostilities in Syria, I was now living on my overdraft agreement-I could only access the cash by travelling out of the country since international sanctions had cut access to ATM machines and accessing my bank on-line, I wonder how inconvenient this was for the regime?
The Syrian government had refused permission for me to work on humanitarian issues with the UN but now I was being offered a commission in Egypt to cover the refugee crisis there, I would need to resolve the residency issue quickly to allow me to leave for a couple of weeks work.
My resident permit is regarded as lost, I didn’t lose it but this still means I have to report it to the police, this did not sound like an appetizing prospect given the current situation, I offered one of the officers a sizeable incentive to help, about 1 000 Syrian Lira created a human dynamo of efficiency, I collected the bits and bobs of the usual paperwork and pictures and he ran around the building getting stamps, weeks of hand wringing and head shaking seemed to finally be coming to an end, all that was now needed was to enter my details in the computer; I could see from the expressions on the two officers faces the problem was serious, I was not really sure what was happening but we headed upstairs to another computer in another office, I had not realized this was some kind of security department and now various officers were taking over from the soft one helping me, they wanted to detain me but the soft one pulled me to his side away from them, I was told I was under investigation, I needed to visit the notorious Palestine Branch 235 but before that I had to visit another security officer in Merjeh Square.
My first thought was simply that they had decided to kick me out of the country, usually people are detained a day or two and put on a flight out, not the scariest of scenarios and one I had often imagined happening, I felt sick as I left the building promising to go visit the security officer in Merjeh Square, as I walked from Baramke to Merjeh I contemplated the situation, the Palestine branch was infamous, I consoled myself with the thought that if they considered me such a threat they would have come for me and not waited for me to turn up at immigration, a drink was in order so I didn’t do as I was told I went home instead.
I sat in my courtyard with a glass of whiskey and listen to a helicopter circle like a vulture overheard, despite the seriousness of things I remained calm and pragmatic JW1_2667

Damascus the Beginning of the End (pt2)

I tried to put life in Syria behind me as I journeyed through Jordan; it had been a while since I had last been outside the country and it felt good not to be looking over my shoulder all the time, I did feel a sense of relief after checking into a cheap downtown Amman hotel, I have no great affection for Amman although filling up on Fuul and Falafel at Hashems is always a pleasure but putting Syria behind me was not quite as easy as I would have hoped.
My first reminder came during the night, I woke suddenly in panic only to find it was the noise from a nightclub in the next door building, my muddled mind was mixed up and for a minute I could not work out where I was, I am sure I heard gun shots, maybe I did, these kind dream induced mini panic attacks have been persisting until now, even here now in the cold light of day the sound of helicopters sends shivers down my spine.
I stayed a little too long in Amman busying myself with photography and meeting friends and was glad to be on the pre-dawn bus to Petra, now while I like to think my work shows a degree of emotion most close friends may argue that I am not prone to showing it, I am after all English so I guess I let the side down- the bus was dark and cold as I clutched a paper cup of stale Nescafe and cried to the sound of the only Lebanese women who embodies the essence of Syria; Fairuz.
From Petra to Aqaba in the hoof prints of Lawrence and that wonderful Arab revolt whose legacy is being fought over still. A boat across the Gulf of Aqaba to Sinai, through the mountains and over the Suez canal and onto to Cairo, along the Nile to the Nubian city of Aswan and back to Cairo and finally a flight to Beirut before the cab ride back to Damascus.
I met displaced Syrians at every turn, hands held out hopefully, clutching a Syrian passport as undisputed evidence of suffering, the cafes of Cairo, the Streets of Beirut and Amman most surprisingly of all on a small boat crossing the Nile to a dusty village not far from the border with Sudan, I had tried to put some distance between me and the sadness of Syria but seemingly that was not possible and now it’s time to head back.
amman10

Damascus the Beginning of the End (pt1)

I walked away from the customs building to the waiting car with my passport stamped and precariously slipped into the back pocket of my jeans, the driver was waiting patiently smoking a cigarette, legs crossed and leaning against the bonnet of the taxi, mafi musklia he asked me tossing his cigarette away and getting in the car, mafi musklia I lied as I took my place in the back, the car pulled out and headed towards the Jordanian side of the Syrian border, the heart wrenching sound of war was a hundred kilometers behind me now but for some reason I didn’t feel any sense of relief.
The journey to the border had begun with the ground shuddering sound of heavy artillery, launched from a position behind us, the taxi drivers had grown accustomed to the sound but the waiting passengers would all flinch with each boom, we could all see the plumes of black smoke rising from the suburbs of Damascus below us, few people commented, four of us bundled into the car and we set off, a trip I had made many times before but now the landscape had changed, everything had changed, lives ripped apart by war, tanks wedged into narrow streets ,the wreckage and rubble of people’s homes lay all around, I had listened to the sounds of this carnage day after day and now faced with it I was consumed with sadness, nobody spoke in the car, everyone but me smoked.
The road to the border was just a series of checkpoints, for the most part only cursory checks and searches and for me no questions but two of the passengers didn’t make it passed the last checkpoint; they didn’t look very surprised as we left them standing at the side of the road their cheap black hold-all’s being searched by two Syrian army privates.
As the car sped through the monochrome landscape of Jordan I contemplated the problem I had not mentioned to the taxi driver, in my passport was a valid stamp that would allow me to return to Syria but the immigration police had retained my residency card, I had argued long and hard but they insisted new regulations meant they would send it to Damascus and I could collect it when I return.
After a year of war and no work I was heading to Jordan and Egypt to try and drum up some work, my financial situation was now serious and the trip was an investment, it was to prove more costly than I had anticipated.JON_9866

The Art of Oriental Dance Photography Exhibit Istanbul 14th Oct

My work focusing on the art of Belly Dance  will be exhibited at Galatea Art Gallery on Tuesday Oct 14th and I would love for you all to come-the opening is at 6pm.

I would also really appreciate you sharing this invitation with your friends who may be interested-thank you.

Also anyone in Istanbul who wants to display a poster feel free to give me a shout.

Follow the links for further info

Look forward to seeing you there

John10703555_706153729469405_5464016630914926671_nhttps://www.facebook.com/raqssharqiart

Belly Dance Istanbul

Following on from the previous post I would just like to draw attention to the wonderfully talented dancer Hale Sultan.
An award winning Turkish Belly Dancer that has performed around the world is available to share her exceptional talent with students in Istanbul.
For anybody interested in Belly Dance classes, workshops or performances please visit her website at
http://www.halesultan.net
Or feel free to drop me a line and I can put you in touch.
JON_6399

Not virgin-white like that old Doric shrine

Not virgin-white like that old Doric shrine

It seems no work of Man’s creative hand,
by labour wrought as wavering fancy planned;
But from the rock as if by magic grown,
eternal, silent, beautiful, alone!
Not virgin-white like that old Doric shrine,
where erst Athena held her rites divine;
Not saintly-grey, like many a minster fane,
that crowns the hill and consecrates the plain;
But rose-red as if the blush of dawn,
that first beheld them were not yet withdrawn;
The hues of youth upon a brow of woe,
which Man deemed old two thousand years ago,
match me such marvel save in Eastern clime,
a rose-red city half as old as time.
John William Burgon